Hail the Villain has a great website. You should go to it. Don’t click “Skip Intro” — the vehicular homicide that opens the site, which looks like Frank Miller’s Sin City reimagined by Ed Hardy, is at least worth your 30 seconds, even if the site itself loses your attention. As a throwback to the days when Flash animators were celebrities because everyone was still amazed by the Internet, it’s a refreshing little waste of time. In fact, I’d recommend it over their debut album, Population: Declining, which isn’t a waste of time — not completely — but isn’t a throwback to anything either, beyond static, status quo alternative metal.
But I guess that’s just Roadrunner’s jam these days, isn’t it? It seems that its days of independently dispensing indispensable heavy metal — Obituary’s Slowly We Rot, Sepultura’s classic early albums, and the European releases of Metallica’s pre-Black Album output — are long behind them. Now, just barely hanging on to the bottom of Warner Bros.’ totem pole (you should see their website), they’re the spleen for big names — Korn, RATT, even Kiss now have a home there — and radio-ready small fries. There’s always the hope that one of these veterans will turn out a late-career stunner — Megadeth released serviceable solid albums last year — or that one of those upstarts will be the next Opeth, so picking up a Roadrunner record isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s getting pretty close, though.
Population: Declining isn’t about to cushion that fall, but Hail the Villain does get your hopes up. When two bass kicks close out the first line of nu-metal riffing on “Take Back the Fear”, I nearly expected the stop-start drumming to drop off into some suffocating mathcore madness a la Gabe Serbian of The Locust. But, no. Only more of that same nu-metal riffing, then a two-part harmony in the chorus, an atmospheric interlude that lasts about two seconds, and a melodic bridge that wouldn’t be out of place on a lesser Foo Fighters song. The semi-automatic attack of faster songs like “My Reward”, “Evil Has a Name”, “Try Hating the World” and “Social Graces” similarly piqued my interest by virtue of their aggression alone, before launching into their lame choruses and lamer interludes.
When did this become the norm in alternative metal, this unceasing heavy-pretty-heavy pattern? Why does every verse of down-tuned thrashing have to be followed by a soaring chorus? The sound is harder and gruffer than even Alice in Chains, easily the most metallic of the grunge greats, but the songwriting is pure pop. Hail the Villain wants to have it all: their macho bluster qualifies them for Ozzfest, but their dour melodicism and notebook-margin angst could put them onstage with teen-friendly goth acts like In This Moment and Atreyu.
The result is a rock ‘n’ roll compromise of the most middling order. The metal on Population: Declining wants to be played on MTV, and is (sometimes) catchy enough to burrow into your brain momentarily. “Blackout” and “Pyro” are the only real moshers on the album, and they go in the ear and out the other — which, of course, just proves my point: Hail the Villain is a radio rock act at its heart. Their unceasing thrash riffing is meaty but monotonous, and their songwriting is just too plain to warrant a recommendation.